There are 130 billion masks thrown away every month. That means 180 million per hour worldwide. If we multiply that by the amount of time that has lapsed since the onset of the pandemic until today, plus an unknown amount of future time because, vaccine or not, we’ll be wearing them for a while still, and you arrive at chilling figures, much more than what we have been seeing. Disposable masks, the highly-regarded weapon against COVID around the world, are becoming an enormous environmental problem. We use heaps of them, just under a billion per month in Italy alone, estimates the Polytechnic University of Turin, but we’re unable to dispose of them as we normally would. You only have to look around you to see how many escape the incinerator and end up on the street, in parks and in the oceans. If we want to make more calculations, multiply everything by the 450 years that a mask needs to decompose (they are mostly made of polypropylene), and we arrive at a complete picture of what has now become not only a health emergency, but an ecological one as well.
It’s not only a question of quantity and spread; it’s the very nature of these pieces of personal protective equipment that makes them difficult to manage. Disposable and able to spread infection, they’re almost treated like hazardous waste. Unsurprisingly, initial attempts to reduce their widespread use introduced a problem tied to the virus: people wondered if there was an alternative. Let’s sterilise them so we can reuse them, like cloth masks. A noble attempt, corroborated by experiments and prototypes (one of the most advanced was offered by De Lama, an Italian company specialised in creating machines used to treat hospital waste), but extremely difficult in practice.